When disasters meet conflict

In 2015, Professor Thea Hilhorst, recipient of a NWO-VICI grant, launched a new research project. Hosted by the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University, the project will focus on the disaster response of humanitarian aid and local state and non-state institutions in different conflict scenarios. The programme will be run at an Institute-level, and particularly in co-operation with colleagues in the GGSJ and CIRI research groups.

About the research project

Every year, there are some 400 disasters triggered by natural hazards, mostly in developing countries. A large number of these strike in countries affected by conflict. There is evidence that conflict aggravates disaster and that, vice versa, disaster may intensify conflict - but not much is known about how disasters and conflict are precisely related, and how they may impact upon the aid responses given in times of crisis.

Buldozers widening the river in Jakarta, Indonesia. This governmental flood intervention project entailed clearance of the riverbanks which stirred protest among poor riverbank settlers as they were evicted. Photo by Rudolf Abdul Muiz

Research question

This research project addresses the question:  How do state and non-state actors and humanitarian agencies respond to disasters in different conflict-affected situations, and how does this affect the institutional power, legitimacy and relations of these actors?

The little scholarly and political attention for situations where disasters and conflict collide treats conflict as a singular unit, disregarding the diversity in conflict conditions and disaster response challenges. This research innovatively builds on the premise that the nexus of disaster and conflict and the responses of international and country-based actors largely depend on the type of conflict situation where the disaster occurs.

The research distinguishes three types of political and institutional instability:

  • high-intensity conflict
  • low-intensity conflict
  • post-conflict situations (for example, the Haiti earthquake of 2010).

The core of the research consists of qualitative case studies on disaster response in conflict situations. These case studies systematically investigate how  international agencies interact with the state and non-state actors, such as rebel movements, NGOs, the private sector, communities and the media.


Roanne van Voorst and Dorothea Hilhorst recently produced a report, 'Humanitarian action in disaster and conflict settings: Insights of an expert panel', which helps scholars and practitioners to understand better the complexity and perverse outcomes that characterize the engagement of the international aid sector with local political realities in conflict settings.

The report records the insights that were drawn from two rounds of an expert panel, in which 30 key humanitarian actors with great experience in the field participated.

Download the report - 'Humanitarian action in disaster and conflict settings: Insights of an expert panel'

Project team